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Americans voting in front of a flag

Election Security

This pop-up case is part of the series: Election 2020


Intelligence shows that foreign actors are already interfering in the 2020 U.S. election. How should the United States respond?

The Situation

Free and fair elections are essential to a functioning democracy. However, ensuring the integrity of U.S. elections is a growing national security challenge. As cyber capabilities become more advanced, foreign actors are increasingly targeting elections around the world through cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns in order to influence results, aggravate social and political tensions, and undermine confidence in democratic processes. Election interference not only threatens U.S. sovereignty but can also sow instability that hinders the government’s ability to operate effectively. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia interfered in both the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2018 midterm elections by accessing state election systems and voter data, hacking and leaking Democratic National Committee emails, and spreading disinformation on social media. It does not appear that hackers directly manipulated any voter data, and it is difficult to know how successful the disinformation campaign was. But Russian interference struck a blow at confidence in U.S. elections. Analysts fear that if policymakers cannot ensure public trust in future elections, even the threat of interference could erode democratic systems and aggravate domestic divisions, weakening national security.

Intelligence agencies and security experts warn that the 2020 U.S. elections are already being targeted by Russia and are at risk of being targeted by China and Iran as well. Election interference is expected on multiple fronts. Most directly, foreign actors could launch cyberattacks on U.S. election infrastructure by hacking voting systems to manipulate votes. They could also attack voter registration systems in order to remove certain voters from the rolls, target them for disinformation, or impede their access to the polls. Cyberattacks could target specific campaigns or parties as well in search of damaging information to leak. Furthermore, disinformation campaigns on social media threaten to influence the outcome of an election and exacerbate partisan divisions. Even a small-scale or failed attack on an election would create mistrust in the democratic process. With elections fast approaching, policymakers face a renewed challenge to safeguard U.S. elections against foreign threats and to determine how to respond to actors seeking to interfere in the United States’ democracy.

Decision Point

The U.S. intelligence community has reported that foreign actors, including Russia, have mounted campaigns to interfere in the upcoming U.S. 2020 election process. These are likely multipronged efforts involving disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks on election infrastructure or candidates. If not addressed, these efforts could undermine U.S. election integrity and damage public trust in democratic systems, potentially for years to come. The National Security Council (NSC) is meeting to advise the president on how the government should safeguard U.S. national elections. Members will need to address current insecurity in the country’s election systems and determine if and how the United States should counter foreign interference.

NSC members should consider any combination of the following options:

  • Prepare to employ cyber counterattacks and sanctions against perpetrators. Offensive measures could safeguard future elections, but they risk diplomatic fallout and do not secure current election systems.

  • Provide federal funding to bolster election infrastructure and establish a task force to create election day contingency plans, oversee preelection testing on ballot machines, and provide cybersecurity training and support. This option enhances security but requires significant funds.

  • Take executive action to regulate disinformation on social media and create a public awareness and media literacy campaign to educate voters. This option would address disinformation but not election infrastructure. In addition, regulations on social media could face criticism for limiting freedom of expression.

  • Maintain current election practices while continuing to monitor and disclose threats and warn foreign actors of severe consequences if interference continues. This option would require the least commitment of resources but would not improve the security of upcoming elections.

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Classroom handouts

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